Neo-luddite questions sustainabilty of nanotechnologies

Kate:  Poet and academic John Kinsella calls himself a neo-luddite. He isn’t interested in destroying new technology like  many of the original Luddites protesting against the social upheaval of the industrial revolution. However John believes that new technologies like computers are ‘tools of destruction’, rather than ‘tools of liberation’. He aims to live an alternative simple life (similar to principles of frugality discussed in an earlier post) choosing simple technologies with low environmental impacts over more ‘advanced’ alternatives.  This year he will largely go ‘off-line’ and travel overland instead of flying.

The neo-luddite argument against new technology is based on perceived environmental and social impacts.  Key  ideas include that:

  • More complex technologies usually involve greater environmental impact from more complex and energy intensive production processes
  • Enhanced technologies, like new communication technologies, often make our lives more complex and demand increasing amounts of our time. So rather than giving us freedom they can deprive us of our liberty by encroaching on our health and mental and physical freedom.
  • New technology can be faddish promoting classic consumerism. An obvious example being the rapidity at which computer technology becomes obsolete creating masses of e-waste as consumers constantly upgrade to the latest software and machinery when existing technology may be fine for their purpose

When interviewed on radio national’s futuretense this week John singled out nanotechnologies as an example of highly complex technologies with high environmental impact.  So how sustainable is nanotech? I personally (unlike the rest of the Bridge8 crew) have limited background in nanotechnology but a quick web search revealed two good sources discussing the environmental impacts of nanotechologies.

A Wikibook on Potential Environmental Impacts of Nanotechnology produced by the Technical University of Denmark highlights the following:

  • Manufacturing and disposal stages may involve considerable impacts.  These include extraction of very rare materials using very energy intensive methods compared to extraction of more abundant materials.  Also micro-manufacturing often involves high energy and waste due to purity requirements. Plus nanomaterials usually involve products of limited recyclability.
  • This suggests that potential environmental impact of nanomaterials could be more far-reaching than impacts on personal health and ecosystems by free nanoparticles (that has been the focus of most attention). However there are few studies that have addressed impacts from a whole life-cycle perspective.

An article on the Greennano website  “Not so ‘green’ nanotechnology manufacturing” discusses the  potential toxic impacts to ecosystems from by-products of carbon nanoparticle production.

Emerging at a time when environmental impacts are widely considered, nanotechnologies are subject to scrutiny that never existed for technologies emerging in the time of the Luddites. Proponents of ‘green nanotechnology’ suggest that nanotechnologists have the opportunity to design and manufacture new products right the first time.  The challenge is to have desired technological advantages using economically viable processes and materials that don’t cause harm to human health and the environment.  Much greater analysis of the full life cycle impacts of nanotechnologies seems vital if this is to be achieved.

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